For the past 30 years, there has been a lot of advice about parenting focused on the importance of building children’s self-esteem. Self-esteem reflects the strength of a positive self-concept that reflects people’s sense of self-confidence, their effectiveness at getting things done, and their feeling that they have value.
An obvious way for parents and teachers to build children’s self-esteem is through praise. It is intuitive that if a child performs a task well, then praising their effort will boost their self-esteem.
Previous research has begun to poke holes in this intuitive belief about the relationship between praise and self-esteem. For example, Carol Dweck and her colleagues have demonstrated that the kind of praise that adults give to children influences children’s beliefs in important ways.
Some praise reinforces a belief that a child has certain traits or talents (“You are so good at math.” or “You are really smart.”) This kind of praise can lead children to believe that key abilities are rooted in talents (what Dweck calls an entity theory). When children believe they have a particular talent, then when they have difficulty in that area, they react as though they have reached the limit of their talent, and they are prone to give up. So, a child who believes she has a talent for math may give up when she takes algebra and finds the concepts difficult to master.
Instead, Dweck and her colleagues argue that praise should focus on effort (“You worked hard on that.”). Praise focused on effort teaches children that they are developing mental skills (what Dweck calls an incremental theory). Children who believe that they are acquiring skills react to difficulty by working harder rather than giving up.
An interesting paper in the March, 2014 issue of Psychological Science by Eddie Brummelman, Sander Tomaes, Bram Orobio de Castro, Geertjan Overbeek, and Brad Bushman explored the influence of extreme praise on children. Extreme praise involves statements like “That was an incredibly beautiful painting” as opposed to a less extreme “That was a beautiful painting.”
These researchers argue that adults may try to lift the self-esteem of children with low self-esteem by using this extreme praise. Despite these good intentions, extreme praise may backfire, because children with low self-esteem may come to believe that only an extraordinary level of work will please adults, and so they will actually shy away from taking on new challenges. In contrast, children with high self-esteem should be relatively unaffected by extreme praise.
Two studies in this paper focused on whether adults are more likely to give extreme praise to children with low self-esteem than to children with high self-esteem. In one study, parents and their children (who were between seven and 11 years old) were observed interacting as the children did a series of difficult math problems while the parents watched. Prior to this session, the children were given a standard measure of self-esteem. The researchers examined the praise the parents gave to the children. Parents were much more likely to give extreme praise to their children if their children had low self-esteem than if their children had high self-esteem. This result held up, even taking into account the children’s level of math ability, their gender, and age.
A final study examined the influence of extreme praise on later performance. In this study, children between the ages of eight and 12 participated in a study conducted at a science museum. All of the children were given a measure of self-esteem. Then, the children were introduced to an expert painter via video. Then, they drew a copy of a famous painting and were told their drawing would be evaluated by the famous painter. The experimenter left the room and came back a while later with the evaluation. Some children were given extreme praise (“You made an incredibly beautiful drawing.”), others were given regular praise (“You made a beautiful drawing.”) and some children were given no feedback on their drawing.
Next, children were given several other drawing tasks. In each one, they had the chance to copy a simple figure or a complex figure. They were told that if they selected the complex figure to draw, they would probably make a lot of mistakes, but they would learn a lot. If they selected the simple figure, they would make few mistakes, but they would not learn as much.
Children with low self-esteem were much less likely to select complex figures to draw when they were given extreme praise than when they were given regular praise. Children with high self-esteem were less strongly influenced by the type of praise. Using other measures, the researchers were able to rule out the possibility that the low self-esteem children simply did not believe the extreme praise.
Putting all of this together, adults try to compensate for children’s low self-esteem by giving those children more extreme praise. Unfortunately, this extreme praise can lead children to avoid taking on new challenges, because of their concern that they will not be able to live up to adults’ high expectations.
So, what are parents and teachers to do?
Ultimately, self-esteem is just too broad a concept to provide a good guide for helping children develop as students and learners. Instead, it is important to focus on teaching children the value of putting in effort when learning difficult concepts and the importance of what Bob Bjork calls desirable difficulties in learning. Desirable difficulties are problems and tasks that are just beyond a child’s reach that require effort to master but are ultimately achievable.
It is certainly important for children to feel good about themselves, but if we focus on how children feel about themselves without thinking about their ability to learn, we run the risk of doing more harm than good.
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